Zed Karoui

4 December 2023

Introduction

Many of the world’s leading brands have been observed plastering rainbow flags across their logos, products, and ads, particularly during Pride month. And yet, such efforts to align brands with movements for social justice can often seem cynical and superficial. Companies have been accused of “rainbow washing” – that is, engaging in public displays of support for LGBTQ+ people without actually implementing changes to support these people within their own businesses. How can we hold companies to account, and meaningfully assess whether corporate rhetoric is in keeping with policies and practices on the ground?

 

My research considers this question by looking at how international hospitality groups present themselves in their internal and external corporate messaging versus how they conduct themselves in practice, particularly in terms of their treatment of transgender employees. Although there is some existing research into Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and LGBTQ+ inclusiveness at work, there are only limited studies focusing on the inclusion of transgender workers and the benefits of creating transgender inclusive workplaces. My project aims to address this, with the ultimate aim of making workplaces more inclusive and equitable for transgender people.

 

Certainly, there seems to be some appetite to “talk the talk” when it comes to trans inclusion in the hospitality sector. IHG hotels and resorts, Hilton and Marriott International were among 200 major multi-national corporations that signed a US Supreme Court brief in favour of the LGBTQ+ workforce, for example, arguing that excluding these people from federal civil rights law was poisonous and would threaten the nation’s business interests. Marriott International went a step further and hosted events and campaigns as part of their strategy to help advance LGBTQ+ inclusion policies at work. But the question remains as to whether these actions actually cash out as benefits for trans workers in the sector, or whether they ultimately fail to get much beyond rainbow washing.

Rhetoric and reality

Research suggests that the inclusive rhetoric of multi-national corporations is some distance from the lived reality for many trans people. A 2021 study by the Human Rights Campaign, for example, found that 60% of transgender employees at companies with “good” LGBTQ+ policies and practices still reported experiencing discrimination in the workplace. Although some companies implement reactive measures to protect trans employees, almost 30% of trans members of staff report often feeling excluded from the social fabric of their company. Other research, meanwhile, reveals that 35% of employers in the hospitality sector are less likely to hire transgender candidates. There is evidently still much to be done in terms of cultivating trans inclusive workplaces, then, both within and beyond the hospitality sector.

 

My own, ongoing work takes several different approaches to examining employers’ claims for promoting and operating an inclusive workplace environment for transgender and gender non-conforming workers – looking at Equality, Diversity & Inclusivity (EDI) policies, company websites, written reports, and press releases, to see how major players in the hospitality sector talk to, and about, themselves. I’ll then be looking to investigate the claims being made about trans inclusive workplaces by talking directly to the people involved (both HR mangers and relevant workers). These interviews will revolve around whether companies in fact do what they claim they do, how they do it, and whether workplace practices can be reformed in the interests of workers.

 

The primary goal of my project is therefore to help improve the working conditions of trans employees, protect their rights and eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment in the workplace. What are the key elements that define a workplace as trans-inclusive, and how can companies’ claims to offer a trans-inclusive workplace be evaluated? The research I’ve undertaken so far has reinforced the idea that there are certain steps that would-be trans inclusive employers can take to meaningfully support their workers, including offering gender-identity-specific health care benefits and medical procedures to cover transition costs and adopting a clear and comprehensive approach for managing transition at work. Moreover, addressing other critical issues for transgender workers, such as “DeadNaming” and bathroom access, would increase trans staff retention and minimise employee turnover.

 

I hope there’ll also be some secondary beneficiaries from the project, given that it will develop a framework for assessing the alignment between corporate messaging and workplace practices. While the framework will be developed specifically in terms of trans inclusion in the hospitality sector, it will also provide an adaptable and transferrable tool for use in other contexts – a generic framework for assessing whether companies are ‘walking the talk’ in terms of their corporate social advocacy. By developing an evaluation framework of this kind, I hope to be able to challenge rainbow washing and disingenuous claims regarding trans inclusion, to provide a tool for assessing companies’ approaches to other social issues, and to advance the limited scholarship on the legitimacy of corporate advocacy in the hospitality sector.

Zed Karoui is a Doctoral Researcher and Hospitality Management Lecturer at the University of West London. Zed’s doctoral research is on Corporate Social Advocacy and Corporate Activism in the hospitality industry. He holds a BA (Hons) in Hospitality Management and an MA in Luxury Hospitality Management, both earned at his Alma mater, the University of West London. Zed spent more than a decade of his professional career working in the hospitality sector in Africa, Europe, and North America, working in hotel brands such as Marriott International, Hilton Worldwide, and Maybourne Hotel Group.

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